Wrongfully imprisoned by the new totalitarian state, Nial Malik, hero of the revolution that failed, escapes custody and gets another chance to put things right, which is only proper; after all he did cause the whole mess in the first place. (This is a work in progress.)
The Again Hero
Copyright © 2005 Alistair Potter
Glass fronted office buildings border the Grand Plaza of Malik on three sides. A busy thoroughfare runs along the fourth. Set opposite the road, and dominating the scene, is the weathered bronze statue of Nial Malik, the Revolutionary Hero. He poses at the very peak of a high mountain, grasping a flag standard, which rises triumphantly above his head.
The Grand Plaza is one of the few truly open spaces remaining in the centre of Numa City, the capital of the Congress of Numanian states. Tastefully planted with small trees and bushes, and with a scattering of pools and fountains, it's a lovely place to visit on a sunny afternoon.
As usual, I made for my favourite bench, which is tucked in a corner well away from the road. As the sun sinks and the buildings cast their shadows, it's always the last bright spot. Just before I settled, I paused to watch a group of tourists standing in front of Malik's statue, their faces aglow with wonder as they read the plaque at the foot of the black marble plinth.
I know every word on that plaque; which I should, since I wrote it.
A faint tingle of static electricity tickled the back of my neck and I turned my face casually away as a small spherical surveillance drone drifted by. It floated about four metres off the ground, its mirrored metallic skin reflecting both the blue of the clear skies above the city, and a strangely distorted panoramic view of the plaza. Optical data streamed from its scanning lens to the central computers, and given enough time it would identify everyone in the Plaza. Everyone except me. If the drone had a clear image, my scan would return Terrence Mutz, retired waste disposal technician.
I often wonder if Mutz ever existed, or if the Council of Freedom made the name up to save time. To be blunt, Terrence Mutz bears a striking resemblance to Nial Malik. Maybe not so much to the statue, the Council used a bit of licence there; they made me taller, more rugged and handsome, with a powerful, heroic build. I think it was a committee effort. I suppose I should have been grateful that they let me write the inscription on the plaque.
The drone drifted past the group in front of the statue and stopped, hovering above a man sitting by a fountain. He opened a metal lunchbox by his side and when the drone shifted position to try and scan inside, he closed it quickly. The drone held its position and the man tried to ignore it. I almost laughed when I saw a pair of grey-clad Enforcers striding across the Plaza towards him. This was law enforcement at its most ludicrous.
Shouting and gesturing at the lunchbox, the Enforcers got the man to his feet. Passers-by avoided any sign of interest, averting their gaze in true obedient-citizen fashion.
Given better circumstances I would have liked to meet the man with the lunchbox. He was definitely someone who still knew what personal freedom was about. I admired his nerve as he took his time laying out a neat row of sandwiches and fruit for the Enforcers to inspect.
When he casually produced a small hand stunner and fired, I'm sure my jaw dropped. In an instant both Enforcers were out cold on the ground, and in an Enforcer control room someone had just hit the panic button to scramble a rapid response team.
The man turned on the drone. It had no protocol for this situation; it just floated there as he fried its circuits. First it wobbled, smoke jetting from its stabilising thrusters, then it burst into flames, and finally, with a loud bang, it crashed to the ground. Good sense stopped me raising both arms and cheering.
For most of the people near me, the drone hitting the ground was their first warning that something was wrong. I'd seen it all unfold and knew from the second the man drew the stunner, that I should have been somewhere else. Only my perverse pleasure at watching the drama unfold had kept me there, but now it was definitely time to leave.
Screams filled the air and an acrid burnt plastic smell drifted with the smoke from the burning drone. I sidestepped around my bench and backed slowly and carefully towards the nearest gate, about ten metres away. I was halfway there when the first helicopter drop ship arrived; skimming the rooftops and sweeping in over the plaza, its siren wailing and its twin rotors hammering the air.
Drop ships are big ugly boxes with rotors mounted over the front and rear. This one settled into the Plaza, its downdraught throwing dust, shrubs and people aside with equal disregard. Once down, Enforcers tumbled out in number. Most citizens cowered or fell back in panic; strangely, a few were drawn forward.
Amidst this confusion and bustle I continued my hopefully inconspicuous progress towards the perimeter railing, until I was through the gate and out of the Plaza.
Two more drop ships arrived and a fleet of ground cars. The Enforcers used the railings around the Plaza as their perimeter, erecting barriers across all the exits and trapping everyone still inside.
A flurry of drones filled the air, spreading through the adjoining streets to watch for unusual activity.
I let myself get pushed up to the railing with the inevitable rubberneckers, watching as everyone in the Plaza was methodically gathered up and bundled into a fleet of carriers. Anyone caught would be held while their papers were checked and their movements corroborated against surveillance records. Was the man with the lunchbox still among them, or had he managed to escape? I hoped so.
Who was he? Someone stretched to the limit probably, who finally snapped and decided to go out in a blaze of glory. None of this would make the news, since it involved a direct attack on the Enforcers. If they had him, he'd get a swift trial and execution. At least that was better than the old regime, which inevitably involved some form of torture.
With the Plaza almost empty, Enforcers dressed in riot gear pushed out into our crowd. Shouting and menacing us with stun sticks, they ordered an immediate dispersal. It was exactly what I had been waiting for, so I dutifully obliged.
Merging with the general flow, I walked to the nearest overhead transit station. There was a queue at street level due to a couple of Enforcers running body searches with a scanning loop at the foot of the steps. I took out my I.D. and waited my turn. After a quick check, I was sent up the steps.
The Automated Overhead Transit System is my favourite form of transport. Unmanned and with seating for four, it wasn't unusual to ride the cars alone. Running on a flexible network of tracks, a computer at Central Traffic Control chooses the fastest route to the customer's destination. I bought my ticket at the auto-dispenser then waited on the platform to be called forward. In minutes it was my turn; the car swept in and disembarked the previous passengers, then my ticket number was simultaneously announced over the intercom and flashed by overhead displays.
I went to the car and fed in my ticket. As soon as I was settled in the padded seating, the vehicle accelerated out of the station. CTC had already signalled for cars on the main track to anticipate my inclusion in the flow. I slipped into a gap, the vehicles ahead having accelerated slightly and the others behind slowing. From inside the car these speed changes are barely perceptible. The rhythmic jostling was a welcome antidote to the adrenalin-high shakes I was still experiencing.
It was late in the afternoon and the office blocks passing to either side were full of busy minds finding ways to justify their jobs. I know it's a cynical view, but after the revolution I'm sure administrative positions doubled at all levels. Numa City is the capital of the Congress of Numanian states, so we had a lot of administrators to start with.
A siren sounded nearby and I craned to watch as an Enforcer cruiser hurled itself through the traffic on the street below, its over-ride beacon slewing the vehicles in its path to left and right.
My transit car turned onto a curving branch line, immediately slipping into shadow between two buildings, and the siren's wail grew faint behind me.
The buildings to either side dropped steadily in height as the car moved out of the city centre; a swathe of trees and greenery signalling the approach to the suburbs. The car left the main track and stopped at my local station. There was Enforcer presence here, though just the one. He stood watching the comings and goings through reflective sunglasses. His stun stick was holstered, which was a good sign.
At the foot of the transit station steps a passing drone paused to record my progress as I crossed the empty road and made my way into the heart of the suburban complex where I live. These were older houses. Red brick and timber, with real slate roofs—unusual survivors of the final battles that razed most of the properties near the capital to the ground. Not that there were any signs of that; as promised, the Council of Freedom had rebuilt the landscape quickly and efficiently.
I cut diagonally across my lawn and up the porch steps. Turning, I gazed out over the street. Sunshine bathed the neat rows of small, detached bungalows. It promised to be a nice evening; just right for sitting out and watching the world go by until curfew.
Contemplating my exit from the Plaza, I doubted whether the Enforcers would follow up on every citizen that leaked from the edge of the sweep. It was all pretty arbitrary and pointless anyway; they'd have most of it recorded, and all anyone could do was fill in the confused gap between the loss of the drone's signal and the first drop ship arriving.
They came about three in the morning, a strike team of Enforcers, announcing their arrival by firing tear gas canisters through every window. I was on the floor in an instant, just in time to hear both front and back doors being simultaneously blown from their hinges. A pure nonsense, as the Enforcers have keys to all properties in Numania.
As the noise of heavy boots approached through the darkness and gas I shouted, "You could have just rung the doorbell!"
I got no response.
They bundled me face down and pulled my arms back to snap on handcuffs, then they pulled a hood over my head. I felt the sting of a sedative injector on my shoulder and it all went black.
I woke in a brightly lit cell. I lay on a simple bed platform; there was no other furniture except for a functional stainless steel toilet. The walls, floor, and bed were all finished in white wipe-clean ceramic tiles. I was dressed in pale blue prison clothes made from recycled paper. Printed across the chest of the short sleeved shirt was the word INTERROGATION.
A voice came from an overhead speaker. "Name?"
No point in antagonising them, so in a clear voice I said, "Terrence Mutz."
"Waste disposal technician."
There was a long silence, then the cell door swung open and two clone-like grey-clad Enforcers with shaven heads and square chins came in. A tall man in a white overall followed them. His skin was pale and lifeless, almost translucent in places. An involuntary shiver went down my spine.
"Stand," said the man in white.
I obliged and the clone boys took up position to either side of me.
The man in white produced a small hand computer and examined the screen for a few seconds, his long, thin fingers fluttering over the computer's keypad.
"Mutz," he said.
The man raised an eyebrow. "Your records seem a little sparse?"
It wasn't the question I had expected. I got it now; this had nothing to do with the Plaza incident, other than my absence triggering a background investigation. I responded by shrugging.
"We don't have anything on you beyond the last twelve years."
Twelve years, he was right; it had been twelve years since the revolution. But I wasn't about to try and explain anything, a lot of records had been lost around that time. He tried another tack.
"You seem a bit young to be retired?"
"I developed an intolerance to the chemicals we used. Had to give it up."
He nodded. I was just confirming what was on his screen. He stayed quiet, so I knew I was to keep talking.
"Normally I couldn't have afforded to retire but I also get a small war pension. It's enough to get by on."
"Must leave you with a lot of time on your hands?"
"I do voluntary work at the veteran's hospital," I said, again knowing he already had the information in front of him.
"Who did you serve with?"
Now it got tricky, I couldn't say I was in my own team; according to history they all died in the final assault, including me. But this had all been worked out before so I stuck to the script. "Kelvin," I said.
Kelvin was the dumping ground for most unskilled volunteers. He was a career soldier before the revolution and had a knack for turning bumpkins into fighters. In reality, I had fought with his revolutionary brigade, but not as Mutz. As mobile infantry, we saw action on most fronts.
The silence was there again.
"Tenson and Rutledge," I said, completing the chain of command down to what could have been my sergeant. I knew Rutledge quite well. He died late on in the conflict, and though it felt strange to use his name this way, he wouldn't have minded.
"Artillery," the man in white suggested casually.
"Light armour and mobile infantry," I said, correcting him and avoiding the obvious trap.
He seemed satisfied. "That's all for now," he said, waving the two Enforcers out.
I was left alone again. Something unusual was happening; yes I had ducked out from the sweep, but normally they weren't as thorough as this. Maybe it was some new directive from the top, or more likely an overenthusiastic brown-noser trying to score points for his record.
Protesting was useless; this would take as long as it took. I couldn't imagine they'd have any way to challenge my story, so it was just a question of time before they released me.
About an hour later I was taken from the cell and told to shower. They gave me a new set of paper clothes, but printed on the front of this shirt was the word HOLDING. Holding was good I thought. Holding meant waiting to be released, it meant the interrogation was over.
But a nagging thought played at the back of my head; holding could also mean waiting for trial, or for transportation to prison. I pushed those thoughts away; I was paying the price for ducking out of the Plaza. I should have stayed where I was and got the whole thing cleared up like the rest of them.
The holding cell had much the same layout as the interrogation cell, except that the bed had springing and a mattress. I managed to get comfortable and drifted off into a fitful slumber.
They must have gassed me while I was sleeping. When I woke I was back in an interrogation cell but this time strapped to a stainless steel chair with my head, arms and legs in restraints. Sensors stuck to my skin made my forehead itch and the back of my right hand stung where a needle had been inserted and taped down. A thin tube ran from the needle, along the top of my forearm and out of sight. It contained a clear fluid. I felt pretty clear headed, so I concluded they hadn't administered anything yet. If they decided to use some sort of truth serum, things were about to get interesting.
The man in white appeared, looking more like an animated corpse than ever.
"What is your name?" he said.
"Terrence Mutz, same as last time."
His eyes flicked down to the readout on a machine sitting on a narrow column in front of him. He shook his head a little, adjusted something, and then said in a low voice, "Just answer the question asked."
I felt my throat go dry, swallowing back the wisecrack poised on the tip of my tongue.
"Where do you live?"
"17 Martins Boulevard."
"Did you ever meet Nelson?"
"I'm not familiar with that name." It was an honest reply, though I couldn't help wondering if it was the lunchbox man from the Plaza.
He watched the readout for a moment and seemed satisfied. The questions continued for about an hour, sometimes repeating, sometimes innocuous. I wasn't sure what he would make of my answers, I had been Terrence Mutz for long enough now for me to regard it as my real name, at least that's what I hoped. At the end of it all he merely nodded and said, "That will do."
They must have pumped in a sedative because the last thing I remember was the room going blurry.
I was back in the holding cell and predictably my shirt still read HOLDING. This falling asleep and waking up in different places was getting to me; I had cooperated for long enough, next chance I got I would speak up and demand some rights.
I noticed my stomach making quite audible grumbling noises and wondered if they would give me a shirt with the word EATING on it if they got round to feeding me?
As if on cue a small panel in the wall slid open to reveal a tray carrying a segmented plate; each segment held a food item in the form of a different coloured paste. I took the tray out of the wall and set it on the bed. There was no way of knowing if the food was drugged, but what did it matter as long as it fed me?
I decided my favourite was the pink paste, though the actual taste was elusive. I couldn't quite decide if it was fish or bacon, maybe something in between; bish or facon?
After eating, I replaced the tray in the wall compartment. Some time later the man in white came to visit; accompanied by the clone boys, who took up their positions to either side.
"Terrence Mutz," he began, reading from his hand computer.
"I've had enough of this," I said.
I heard the clone boys start to move and tensed for the first blows, but the man stopped them with a gesture.
Reassured I wasn't about to be beaten senseless quite yet, I continued. "I'd like to know what you think I've done?"
He pressed some buttons on the computer then stared me directly in the eye. "There is the matter of you leaving the scene of a crime, but that's not our main concern. The problem is that your records show signs of tampering and we cannot release you until we find out why this is."
My heart sank; there was no way Nial Malik the Revolutionary Hero could explain a comeback from the dead without being locked up as a lunatic. "I know nothing about that," I said, "you need to talk to the people who keep the records."
"We have, and they confirm that the records have been altered, and not by them."
I clamped my jaw shut, counted to five then said, "I want to see a lawyer."
"Tampering with state records is regarded as a terrorist activity, and as such you can be detained indefinitely without legal representation."
"These powers have been available for some time."
"So what happens now?"
He stared at me for a full five seconds before replying, "I think that's up to you."
I wanted to scream out at him; if you knew who I was you wouldn't be doing this! What I managed was, "I know nothing about this. Let me speak to someone else."
He shook his head. "If you have nothing to add to your statement, we'll conclude our interview here."
"Statement, what statement?"
"The privileges of legal representation and various other rights do not apply in this situation. Everything you have said and done since your records were altered twelve years ago is admissible as evidence in this case."
"Outrageous!" I blustered. "It'll take forever to check the last twelve years. What happens in the meantime?"
The man in white allowed a thin smile to form on his face. "You'll be placed in a secure holding facility."
I felt it all slipping away, and a fearful pain dug at my chest. It was that word HOLDING again, but not the good kind of holding where I get dumped on the street in an hour's time without even an apology; this was the bad kind of holding, the one with no end in sight, no way to get help, and no way to prove my innocence.
All content © Alistair Potter.